An Alaska cruise without cruise excursions would literally be only "the tip of the iceberg" for this frontier wonderland of beauty and adventure.
I recently experienced some excursions that Royal Caribbean International offers its passengers. Since it was my first trip to Alaska, I had much to learn: Like if you go in summer, take a sleep mask; otherwise sleeping can be difficult as daylight averages 19-1/2 hours. Also, Alaskan weather can quickly change with a cold wind off the glaciers or a brisk breeze from the tundra, so take a thick jacket for evening, fleece vest for day, socks, gloves, cap or scarf, and forget shorts -- jeans are most comfortable.
We began our journey in Fairbanks, staying at Pike's Waterfront Lodge (www.pikeslodge.com) on the Chena River. It's rustic and cozy, with original art throughout the lobbies and halls. A huge stuffed polar bear peers down from a balcony to remind you this is the wilderness. There's a complimentary shuttle to the airport and the railroad station. And be sure to dine at the Pike's Landing restaurant next door. The salmon with flax seed and herb crust, baked on a Birch plank with lemon and white wine ($23), was a rare treat.
Fairbanks, situated south of the Arctic Circle, is known as the "golden heart" of Alaska, rich with gold mining history and frontier spirit. Our first day we set out in one of RCI's luxurious motor coaches. With reclining leather seats, huge windows, free bottled water, and our jovial driver (Rich Graham) and personable guide (Kristen Toft), we took a tour of the city, then boarded a paddlewheel riverboat for a cruise on the Chena and Tanana rivers. Stopping up and down the coast for onshore demonstrations, we saw renowned Athabascan Indian Dixie Alexander fillet salmon for smoking, witnessed legendary Alaskan bush pilots in action, and went ashore to visit an Athabascan Indian village to learn about the native culture.
We also visited the home of four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher to see her champion dog team. The Iditarod race is an annual event commemorating the 674-mile, 20-driver dog team relay from Nenan to Nome in February 1925 that delivered 300,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin serum, saving the lives of countless children in Nome. The serum arrived 127-1/2 hours after leaving Anchorage.
Back on the motor coach, we found ourselves driving alongside the famous Trans-Alaska pipeline. Designed to withstand earthquakes ranging from 5.5 to 8.5 on the Richter Scale, the $8 billion, 800-mile pipeline stretches across some of the harshest terrain in the world. We stopped at an information center to see the pipeline up close, posing for photos inside a cut-out section of the 48-inch diameter high-tensile carbon steel pipe.
Next we went on the Riverboat Discovery cruise, which is not to be missed. It has an open sun deck but also heated glass-enclosed decks that make the paddlewheel vessel comfortable in any weather. It is wheelchair accessible, has a very nice gift shop, and a full-service snack bar where I ate the best hot dog ever, made of-what else?--reindeer (http://www.riverboatdiscovery.com/alaska/default.asp).
After the riverboat excursion, we boarded a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad near the Steese Highway for a narrated journey across the tundra, through the hills, and finally to the El Dorado Gold Mine (http://www.eldoradogoldmine.com/alaska/default.asp).
We saw small operations similar to those that dotted the landscape during the Gold Rush almost 100 years ago. Pulling into the camp, we were met by husband and wife mining team Dexter and Lynette "Yukon Yonda" Clark, who provided a good-humored and insightful look at prospecting, panning, and placer/sluice mining. Then we each received a bag of dirt and panned for our own gold. While a few were lucky enough to find small nuggets, I managed to find enough gold flakes to fashion into a necklace for a memorable keepsake of my day as a gold miner.
Note: Prices for the Riverboat Discovery & El Dorado Gold Mine are a part of the cruise tour and not considered an excursion one can additionally pay for.
We had dinner at the "Pump House" in Fairbanks, a restaurant and saloon overlooking the Chena River and a National Historic Site. Topping the menu were salmon and haddock, both Alaskan delicacies (www.pumphouse.com).
After tossing and turning all night, trying to sleep with constant daylight creeping around the drapes, we were ready to head out early for the train station and the "Wilderness Express," our much anticipated trip on the Alaska Railroad. Luggage handling, by the way, was convenient -- we left our bags outside the hotel room door in the morning and found them waiting at our next destination.
Our comfortable leather reclining seats were on the top level, with a 180-degree view of the breathtaking scenery all around us, from the rugged tundra to the snow-peaked mountains. When wildlife appeared, the conductor announced the location and slowed the train to a crawl for good viewing and great photos (best taken from the platform between the rail cars). We saw black bears, caribou, moose, and Dali sheep. A guide provided interesting facts about the train, the towns on our route, and the history of our incredible journey.
Everyone commented on the wonderful breakfast in the lower level dining room. Eggs Benedict, hash browns, fresh fruit, homemade biscuits, and reindeer sausage (the most popular choice), costing around $10 with coffee.
Adding to the pleasure were treats available from the coffee bar. My favorite was the Moose Kiss ($6), a mix of Kahlua, Bailey's, and coffee topped with a mountain of whipped cream. Another delight was the Big Grizzly, a warm-up of rum, Kahlua, cream and coffee, topped with whipped cream.
The Wilderness Express, like the Riverboat Discovery, El Dorado Gold Mine and Denali National Park bus trip, are part of RCI's cruise tour and not purchased separately.
We left Fairbanks at 7:30 a.m., arriving in Denali at noon. We checked into the McKinley Chalets, nestled in the trees along the Nenana River, then set out for our Natural History Tour of the Denali National Park. We rode on an old school bus over bumpy, rocky roads as far into the park as the park rangers would allow. We spotted wildlife--moose, caribou, and Dali sheep, perched high on the craggy edges of the steep slopes to escape predators.
That night we opted for the "Alaska Cabin Nite Dinner Theater," with family style dining on ribs and salmon. Performers presented the story of Fannie Quigley, a true Alaskan adventurer, in an authentic log roadhouse. Prices: $48 adult; $24 children.
The next morning we boarded the train for the ride to what is probably my favorite place--Talkeetna-- with its magnificent view of Mt. McKinley, North America's highest mountain at 20,320 feet. It's said to be visible only about 20 percent of the time in summer, but we were lucky enough to have perfect weather for a clear sighting.
Talkeetna was the setting for the TV series "Northern Exposure." A very small town with only a tiny grocery store, liquor store, and a few gift shops, it is also home to Jeff King, recognized as the "Winningest Musher in the World." His victories include not only the 1,049-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race in 1993, 1996, and 1998, but also two dozen first place finishes in races all across Alaska. During the past 20 years, Jeff has logged more than 100,000 miles on a dog sled.
Greeted by 75 friendly, energetic Alaskan huskies, we enjoyed a 1-1/2 hour narrated tour, saw a demonstration of dog sleds and racing equipment, and even got to cuddle 12-day-old puppies. The cost of this delightful excursion, with round-trip transportation from the hotel, is $24 adult/$19 child (www.huskyhomestead.com).
For the more adventurous, "Helicopter Flight-seeing" is available from Talkeetna for $245 to witness the incredible scenery of the Alaska Mountain Range. For the very adventurous, there is a glacier landing and walk 5,600 feet above sea level ($225).
Our last stop was Anchorage, traveling by RCI's motor coach, where we stayed at the beautiful Downtown Marriott overlooking the sprawling Cook's Inlet. From the moment we arrived in Alaska's largest city, we were surrounded by cultural heritage-the Museum of History and Art, Alaska Native Heritage Center, and the Heritage Library Museum. And, of course, there are plenty of souvenir shops to buy wonderful smoked salmon and other local treats to take home.
If possible, I recommend cruising after the land excursions, to give you time to relax and absorb all the beauty you have just seen on land and have yet to experience at sea.
Getting to Seward and your cruise ship from Anchorage is no problem. A $28 million rail station has just opened exclusively for cruise passengers, departing the Anchorage International Airport.
Passengers headed for Alaska with Royal Caribbean can see the full selection of shore excursions available - and book their desired adventures in advance - on the company's web site, www.royalcaribbean.com. Excursion details are available by port and by specific ship and sailing date. Remember that the "season" in Alaska only lasts five months, and space may be limited due to the crowds of tourists. Also note that no meals are included in the shore excursions, but all the restaurants where we ate were reasonably priced. And, of course, seafood is plentiful...and delicious.